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Steamboat Springs Jay Whaley grew up with one foot on the ranch and one foot in the little unincorporated town of Phippsburg. And on Monday, the Routt County Board of Commissioners honored him for 12 years of service as the county’s 4-H agent.
What the commissioners didn’t know before Monday is that Whaley used to be pretty good with a needle and thread.
Whaley recently resigned his position with the county to become the agriculture teacher at Soroco High School, a role he played at the beginning of his career in Cheyenne Wells.
“When I was in high school (at Soroco) you could find me either in the ag shop or the wrestling room, and that’s where I’ll be spending my time now,” Whaley told the commissioners. “And I’ll be a lot closer to home.”
He was praised as an innovator who influenced 4-H leaders across the state.
“Before Jay came here, we had a great 4-H program,” Extension Office Agent CJ Mucklow said. “He made it even greater, and it will continue to be great.”
The fact that Routt County is among 25 to 30 percent of Colorado counties that fund a 4-H agent is critical to the success of the local program, Mucklow added.
“Jay’s peers from all parts of Colorado call him to ask him what they should do,” Mucklow said. “He helped build the big multi-purpose building at the fairgrounds, he started the town kid project in Hayden, our scholarship fund has given out $230,000 in college scholarships, and Jay put a GPS program in place for 4-H kids.”
Not a bad list of accomplishments for a kid who got his start in 4-H sewing a carpenter’s apron.
In 1984, Whaley was a young 4-H’er himself and one of only three boys to participate in the annual 4-H Fashion Review that year.
“Jay was one of the kids who was in 4-H the first year I came and stayed with me all 10 years,” former longtime extension agent Jim Stanko said. “I remember he and his two little brothers were the only two guys in the fashion review. Their mom (Charlotte) was a 4-H leader, and she had them make blue denim aprons like a carpenter would use, with pockets for pencils and tools.”
Whaley went on to become a multiple district wrestling champion and realize his goal of earning a degree in agricultural education from Colorado State University.
“I’ll get to teach kids every day, and I won’t have to drive up to Steamboat to do it,” he said.
Whaley, his wife and their three young daughters lease a 700-acre ranch where they raise cattle, hay and about 50 sheep. When Jay gets off his day job, summer evenings find him tending his irrigation ditches — he and another rancher share a headgate just below Yamcolo Reservoir on the edge of the Flat Tops.
Whaley’s agricultural roots in Routt County go back to his great-grandfather, Ivan Decker, who homesteaded with his mother and two brothers near Toponas in 1898.
“I can go to the museum in Yampa and visit my relatives,” Whaley quipped.
His earliest influence in 4-H came from his grandmother, Verna Whaley.
“I got interested in 4-H when I was 8,” Whaley said. “I showed some steers, showed a lamb once and a pig a couple of times.”
Jay was a member of the Handy Lads and Lasses 4-H club, and his first leader was Rita Herold.
But his greatest love as a youngster might have been leatherwork. His influences included his high school woodshop teacher, Dave Schmittel.
He made two saddles in high school, one for his father, Lynn, and one for himself, that they still ride.
He was too modest to bring it up himself, but Stanko recalls that Whaley won a prize at the state fair for one of the saddles, and that, in turn, earned him a special trip to the annual stock show in Denver.
When he graduated from high school, Jay knew it would be difficult to go into ranching, but he was determined to study agriculture and make a life in the field.
“I knew I wasn’t going to inherit a ranch,” he said. “It’s very difficult to go into ranching today. You almost have to have a lot of money and buy the land as an investment.”
His first two years out of CSU, he taught agriculture on the Eastern Plains. When the chance came to return to the Yampa Valley, he eagerly took the job as the 4-H agent in Routt County.
County Commissioner Doug Monger, who spent 10 years in 4-H himself, noted that current participation of 265 youngsters in Routt County 4-H is a record and added that 4-H participation helps local youngsters go to college and land professional jobs in a wide range of fields.
“I think the numbers speak for themselves,” he told Whaley. “I know that parents can get emotionally involved in (their children’s 4-H projects) and the fact that we never hear from parents of any problems speaks tons.”
Cassidy Kurtz is the new 4-H agent
Cassidy Kurtz, who grew up on a North Routt ranch and participated in 4-H here, will begin her new role as the county 4-H agent Monday, in time to begin preparing for the annual Routt County Fair, Extension Agent CJ Mucklow said Monday.
Kurtz was selected from among three finalists for the position being vacated by Jay Whaley.
Mucklow said she graduated with a double major in agricultural business and animal science from Colorado State University and a master’s in equine sports physiology from Texas A&M University.
Whaley said part of the strength of the local program can be attributed to its history of hiring its leaders from the Yampa Valley. Those folks tend to have an emotional connection to 4-H here.
“It’s not a 9-to-5 job,” Whaley said.
Nancy Stahoviak, chairwoman of the Routt County Board of Commissioners, said in addition to contributing a minority portion of the salaries of the two Extension Office agents working in Routt County, the county fully funds the compensation for the 4-H agent and that person’s aide.